10 Paint Roller Techniques and Tips for Perfect Walls

Paint walls faster and smoother.

Most of you have probably used paint rollers before, with varying degrees of success. Maybe you just plunged right in and started rolling, developing your own technique as you went. Or maybe you read the instructions telling you to apply the paint in some pattern, usually a “W,” before rolling it out.

Here, we’re going to share a few tips and techniques to help you quickly spread a smooth, even coat of latex paint on the wall. Doing it the right way will hell you get the job done faster and eliminate common problems like light areas, roller marks and built-up ridges that sometimes plague first-time painters.

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interior painting tips mix several cans
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Start with Quality Painting Tools

Not even the best technique will work with poor-quality painting tools. Don’t waste your money on those all-in-one throwaway roller setups when you can buy a pro setup that will last a lifetime. Start with a good roller frame.

To extend your reach and give you better control, screw a 48-in. wood handle onto the end of the paint roller. You could also use a threaded broom handle.

You’ll need a container for the paint. While most homeowners use paint trays, you’ll rarely see a pro using one. That’s because a 5-gallon bucket with a special bucket screen hung over the edge works a lot better.

Here are a few of the advantages of a bucket and screen over a paint roller pan:

  • It’s easy to move the bucket without spilling
  • The bucket holds more paint. You won’t have to frequently refill a pan.
  • You’re less likely to trip over or step in a bucket of paint.
  • It’s quicker and easier to load the paint roller cover with paint from a bucket.
  • It’s easy to cover a bucket with a damp cloth to prevent the paint from drying out while you’re taking a lunch break.

Use an old drywall compound bucket or buy a clean new bucket. Add bucket screen and you’re ready to go.

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paint roller cover
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Use a Good Paint Roller Cover

The most important part of your paint rolling setup is the roller cover, also known as a sleeve. It’s tempting to buy the cheapest cover available and throw it away when you’re done. But you won’t mind the few extra minutes of cleanup time once you experience the difference a good roller cover makes.

Plus, cheap roller covers don’t hold enough paint to do a good job. It’ll take you four times as long to paint a room. And you’ll likely end up with an inconsistent layer of paint, lap marks and built-up ridges of paint.

Instead, buy a 1/2-in. nap wool blend roller cover and give it a try. With proper care, this may be the last roller cover you’ll ever buy.

Wool covers do have a few drawbacks, though. They tend to shed fibers when they’re first used. To minimize shedding, wrap the new roller cover with masking tape and peel it off to remove loose fibers. Repeat this a few times.

Wool covers also tend to become matted down if you apply too much pressure while painting. Rolling demands a light touch. No matter what roller cover you’re using, always let the paint do the work. Keep the roller cover loaded with paint and use only enough pressure to release and spread the paint. Pushing on the roller to squeeze out the last drop of paint will only cause problems.

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Close-up of a paint roller on the wall

Load the Paint Roller Cover with Paint

Load the paint roller cover by dipping into the paint about 1/2 in. and then rolling it against the screen. Filling a dry roller cover with paint will require five or six repetitions. After that, two or three dips are all you need. Leave the roller almost dripping with paint.

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Paintroom 8

Prepare Surfaces for Painting

Fill holes in the wall with lightweight spackling compound and sand them smooth when it dries. Then go over the entire wall with 100-grit sandpaper mounted in a drywall sanding handle. The ultimate setup for this job is a pole-mounted drywall sander with a 100-grit mesh drywall sanding screen, but any method of sanding off old paint lumps and bumps will do.

Next, mask off the baseboard and window and door trim. Slide the blade of a flexible putty knife along the edge of the masking tape to seal it. Otherwise paint will bleed underneath.

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Avoid Fat Edges and Roller Marks

Ridges of paint left by the edge of the roller, or “fat edges,” are a common problem. And if left to dry, they can be difficult to get rid of without heavy sanding or patching. Here are a few ways to avoid the problem:

  • Don’t submerge the roller in the paint to load it. Paint can seep inside the roller cover and leak out while you’re rolling. Try to dip only the nap. Then spin it against the screen and dip again until it’s loaded with paint.
  • Don’t press too hard when you’re smoothing out the paint.
  • Never start against an edge, like a corner or molding, with a full roller of paint. You’ll leave a heavy buildup of paint that can’t be spread out. Starting about 6 in. from the edge, unload the paint from the roller. Then work back toward the edge.
  • Unload excess paint from the open end of the roller before you roll back over the wall to smooth it out. Do this by tilting the roller and applying a little extra pressure to the open side of the roller while rolling it up and down in the area you’ve just painted.
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Use Proper Paint Roller Technique

When painting a wall, roll up and down, from floor to ceiling and move over about three-quarters of a roller width each time so you’re always slightly overlapping the previous stroke. When you reach the corner, roll as close as you can to the adjacent wall without touching it.

Roll back over the entire area you’ve covered to smooth and blend the paint. Don’t reload the roller with paint for this step. Use very light pressure.

Repeat those steps until the entire wall is painted.

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paint a room
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Keep a Wet Edge  

Keeping a wet edge is crucial to all top-quality paint jobs, whether you’re enameling a door, varnishing furniture or rolling paint on a wall. The idea is to plan the sequence of work and work fast enough so that you’re always lapping newly applied paint onto paint that’s still wet. If you stop for a break in the middle of a wall, for example, and then start painting after this section has dried, you’ll likely see a lap mark where the two areas join.

The rolling technique we show avoids this problem by allowing you to quickly cover a large area with paint and then return to smooth it out—which brings us to the second important painting technique.

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Lay On Paint, Spread It Out

The biggest mistake most beginning painters make, whether they’re brushing or rolling, is taking too long to apply the paint. After laying on the paint, quickly spread it out and repeat the laying-on process again. This will only work with a good-quality roller cover that holds a lot of paint.

Until you’re comfortable with the technique and get a feel for how quickly the paint is drying, cover only about 3 or 4 ft. of wall before smoothing the whole area off. If you find the paint is drying slowly, you can cover an entire wall before smoothing it off.

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Paintroom 9

Cutting In

Since rollers can’t get tight to edges, the first painting step is to brush along the ceiling, inside corners and moldings. This “cutting in” process leaves brush marks that won’t match the roller texture on the rest of the wall.

For the best looking job, you’ll want to cover as many brush marks as possible with the roller. Do this by carefully rolling up close to inside corners, moldings and the ceiling. Face the open end of the roller toward the edge and remember not to use a roller that’s fully loaded with paint. With practice, you’ll be able to get within an inch of the ceiling rolling vertically.

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White Wall Background Full Frame with Bubbles
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Pick Out the Lumps in the Paint Before They Dry

It’s inevitable that you’ll end up with an occasional lump in your paint. Keep the roller cover away from the floor where it might pick up bits of debris that are later spread against the wall.

Drying bits of paint from the edge of the bucket or bucket screen can also cause this problem. Cover the bucket with a damp cloth when you’re not using it. If partially dried paint is sloughing off the screen, take it out and clean it.

Keep a wet rag in your pocket and pick lumps off the wall as you go. Strain used paint through a mesh paint strainer to remove lumps.

Ryan Van Bibber
Ryan Van Bibber, the executive editor for Family Handyman, is a career journalist with more than two decades of experience in the industry. He's been DIY'ing since he was a kid, learning from his father who was a carpenter and general contractor. Ryan has a natural curiousity to learn how things work and how to make them work better. That spirit has guided his career his own DIY journey as a homeowner. He specializes in the areas of painting, sustainability, and basic home maintenance. Through his career, Ryan covered the NFL for more than a decade, edited award-winning features, worked as a senior editor at Outside magazine as well as writing and editing buying guides and product reviews for national publications.